“I was a disruptive leader,” said India’s first and highest ranking female police officer, with a shrug. “I was not scared of any positions, because I was absolutely confident. I knew what the job meant, and I knew what I wanted.”
Dr. Kiran Bedi has shaken the women’s rights scene worldwide in her roles as an officer, a U.N.-appointed civilian police adviser, author, politician and social activist.
Possibly even more inspiring than the progression of her career, however, is her outlook on what it means to make social change.
“Education isn’t complete until it trains the mind and the heart,” Bedi said. “I came to [the police force]with my heart. Because policemen, to my mind, are the greatest protector of human rights… As well as the greatest violator.
Bedi was the keynote speaker at the Seattle International Foundation’s sixth annual women’s rights event, Women of the World. The event showcased the many Washington-based organizations working to support the equality and welfare of women worldwide.
Bedi joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1972 at the age of 21. After only a few years of service, she was assigned to Delhi’s largely understaffed West District, and quickly demonstrated her abilities by changing the culture of the community from that of punishment to prevention.
“As a cop, the first thing I did was to use my position of influence,” Bedi said. “I had a choice, as a police officer. How many people do I keep arresting? Or, do I work on prevention?”
Citizens were for the first time encouraged to communicate their concerns with the police, and within three short months, the district saw a reduction in both the sexual harassment of women and overall crimes.
In Delhi in the 1970s, these were novel reforms to the police system. Bedi quickly developed a reputation in the community for her toughness, her ability to innovate and her caring disposition.
“Prison became one of my assignments as a police officer,” she said, describing one of her later endeavors in the toughest prison in Delhi – Tihar jail – as inspector general. Overcrowded, underfunded and violent, the prison was far from desirable for any officer, but Bedi jumped at the opportunity.
“… they said, ‘here is a woman who talks about sensitivity, talks about prevention, talks about working for the poor… Put her behind bars, leave her alone’,” she said, adding with a smile, “They didn’t know they gave me a whole city to manage.”
Bedi took the reigns in reforming Tihar, creating job trainings, sports, yoga and meditation classes for the inmates. She also banned smoking and developed a panchayat system, so older or well-behaved prisoners could meet with senior officers to discuss problems in the jail and look for solutions.
Not all of the reforms were well received. Some prisoners unsuccessfully challenged Bedi in court for separating them in her effort to combat gang recruitment, and her superiors later accused her of taking advantage of the prison’s security for her own personal glory. But any backlash toward Bedi was taken in stride.
Confidence stems from childhood, she explained, and begins for many girls with what they choose to spend their time doing; competitive sports, for example. Bedi herself was a tennis player, became the national junior tennis champion in 1966 and later won several titles at national and state-level championships.
“[In sports,] … you sometimes prepare to compete in adversity. For example, I didn’t have a court, so when I had to practice, I had to hit against a wall. In this way I practiced. And I won,” she said. “But I didn’t just stop at tennis. That confidence spills over everywhere, because that becomes you.”
When asked to define the most pressing current issues for women in India, Bedi immediately mentioned fertility rights – the ability to have a choice to conceive, and to live in an environment where girls and boys are equally preferred – as a critical problem both in India and worldwide. Many cultures place certain pressures on women, such as marrying young and producing a name-bearing son, which can be enormous obstacles to opportunities to progress in their lives and careers.
Other speakers at the event highlighted issues being addressed for women worldwide, ranging from land ownership to sanitation and business development. The event precursed today’s Global Washington conference, where Bedi will speak again on her fascinating career, her ideologies for reform and the multifaceted problems still affecting women and girls around the world.